Generalize about the different auto shows, and what they represent? Makes no sense. But that doesn't mean you can't do it: The Tokyo auto show is outrageous design and auto ontology; Frankfurt is, well, just big; Los Angeles is about who has the best new technology, drivetrain advances and buttons and buzzers. And the Detroit show, the North American International Auto Show, that is, is about hype, heritage, iconography, and even a little histrionics.
As Erik Berkman, head of R&D for the Americas for Honda and Acura, put it at the unveiling of the production version of Acura’s NSX supercar, "To understand where we're going, you have to know where we've been." Or, as Reid Bigland, who leads the Alfa Romeo brand in North America, put it when he unveiled the brand’s first Alfa Romeo sports car since the ‘60s, and first Alfa car for the U.S. in nearly as long, "You don't know a car until you know its history."
Alfa Romeo prepped the 4C coupe reveal with a history lesson about the brand, whose cars have won numerous races in different categories probably starting with the P3 in the 1930s, and including the kamikaze 420 hp 158 Alfetta for the first Formula 1 ("I'd like to introduce you to my little friend" said Bigland, invoking Scarface, as he strolled over to the vintage racer). The car, as Bigland pointed out, required no helmet because that sort of protection would have been useless: the open-cockpit racer was basically a Molotov cocktail with a seat in it. But nothing else. How things have changed. The new C4, based on the ‘60s-era Stradale, has seat belts! But more, much more. And it will very likely go up against the Jaguar F1, Porsche and all of the other cars that most of us will never drive, and rarely see.
While the new Acura NSX is undoubtably jaw dropping, I was a bit disappointed with Acura's presentation, but I shouldn't have been. Honda and Acura are always conservative at auto shows, eschewing the circus atmosphere for a more pedestrian (wrong choice of words) affair focusing on the car. In this case, it works because the car is such an icon for the brand. But, as I watched, I couldn't help feeling disappointed because neither Jerry Seinfeld nor Jay Leno were there. After all, both are big NSX fans. You’ll remember that the pair were in Acura’s Super Bowl ad in 2012, battling to be the first to get the car. Seinfeld has been in several Acura ads since then. Both are in a short video borrowing from Seinfeld’s online, Acura-sponsored, "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee." Leno and Seinfeld, in a classic car, pull up to the new NSX, and start arguing about who gets job number one.
Then there’s Mercedes. While the big recent news from that brand has been the F-015 autonomous car concept sedan it unveiled at CES, and showed again on Monday morning in Detroit (and that embodies where the automaker is heading, philosophically), it is also bringing out the 2016 Mercedes-AMG GT S supercar. Drew Slaven, VP marketing at Mercedes-Benz U.S.A., tells Marketing Daily that the car is brand new, and won’t retail until later in the spring. “But there's tremendous anticipation around it." He says the car has a long queue on auto show floors of people waiting to sit in it. He says such cars fill two roles: they drive brand consideration and opinion, and account for important volume in a niche segment. "For sports cars over $100,000, the size of the market is relative. But cars like this do wonders for the brand in creating a halo and excitement. For us, performance is part of the DNA. But when we showcase it in a singular way, it has tremendous power."
In some cases, I think it's a desperation move when automakers launch niche sports cars merely as an exercise in brand polishing. But Acura's case is different. They need a car like NSX because it is an awareness builder for them, and they need awareness as the luxury and near-luxury category gets more and more crowded. Said Mike Accavitti, general manager of Acura, "The car is the future of Acura starting today as Acura focuses on core values and as a challenger brand."
Oh, I forgot to mention, Jerry Seinfeld was, in fact, present, albeit in a passive role, sitting front row next to the developer of the U.S. manufacturing facility for NSX. The camera settled on Seinfeld as Accavitti talked about consumer demand for the cars: "Some customers have been a little more anxious than others." The car starts at around $150,000. Jerry can afford that. Even with the coffee.